Riding northern Pakistan
The most amazing ride I have done in the world scenery wise has been my Himalayan tour of Northern India. That region borders with Pakistan and China. I came across a ride report on ADV Forums about northern Pakistan and it looked even more incredible.
I made enquiries for motorcycle rental in Islamabad, had a good route made and had even chosen hotels however unrest in Pakistan increased significantly with a couple of suicide bombings. I paused and took a step back to rethink things.
I prefer to ride independently. I like the sense of achievement that brings and riding my own pace, many photo stops. no need to keep up with a group. But I would have to ride north from Islamabad through a red zone for Australians where consular help may not be available if I got into trouble and where my travel insurance is likely void. I’m not as young as I once was and actually I am still recovering from cancer. I decided to join a tour.
I found a Aussie company that does motorcycle tours in Pakistan, Karakoram Bikers. Paying in my own currency instead of Euros or US dollars made this more affordable than most bike tours (which are crazy expensive). Furthermore I secured a place before their prices increased.
After my Georgia motorcycle tour I flew to Abu Dhabi with Air Arabia. Tbilisi airport was a surprisingly nice experience after the madness of their roads. New and operating at maybe 25% of it’s capacity. I overnighted at an airport hotel in UAE then flew to Islamabad on Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) – which was interesting…
There was no PIA flight showing on the screens, no PIA counter. I eventually found out the flight is leaving from the cargo terminal and I would need to get a taxi there.
Chaos at check in and again when boarding the very old plane, but the flight was fine, actually much more legroom on those old planes.
Arriving Islamabad I was happy to be met by someone from the tour and transferred to a hotel hassle free as there was no currency exchanges or ATM.
I have a rest day and hang out at the mall people watching. I am struck by how friendly the people are here. I am invited to join and eat with others and am asked about my travel and of course about Australia’s chances in the cricket world cup. My credit card does not work in the ATM’s here but is ok at POS terminals. My Debit card works to give me some cash, basically the tour is all inclusive so I should not need much money.
I meet a few of the other riders tonight and had a fantastic dinner out.
Next day I fly to Skardu. I managed to get a window seat. It is one of the most scenic flights in the world. Please enjoy the footage from the excellent Sam Chui channel of this flight.
On the way to Skardu the captain gave an excellent commentary of the mountain peaks and scenery we were flying through. I’m not a fan of air travel but this was a very enjoyable flight.
I flew the opposite aircraft to Sam – outbound on the airbus and return on the Turboprop. The landing was really spectacular.
Stepping out from the plane you feel like you are in another world, as Sam says “it’s unreal here”. My photos do not express the scale of the peaks here.
Small shakedown ride then first full group dinner. Five other guys, all very well travelled. Drinking whisky someone smuggled here haha.
Here we are with our guide on our way to Shigar. The weather is mixed but the scenery is excellent.
We visit an old fort and had a excellent buffet lunch there then made our way to our accommodations which was bit disappointing.
Next day weather is low clouds, cold single digit temps and passing showers. We visit a waterfall but the rain sets in as we arrive.
Fortunately after lunch we ride clear of the rain and then in the afternoon into blue skies as we make our way east to Khaplu.
The bikes provided are Suzuki GS 150cc models. I like small capacity bikes better than huge ADV bikes however the Suzuki’s are not the best on rough roads. Limited suspension travel and thin seat left me in some discomfort by days end. The reverse pattern shift also took some getting used to.
Our hotel tonight is again ‘shite’ to quote one of the Dutch riders. No hot water after a cold day has some riders in a bad mood. I’m ok with washing out of a bucket but I hope this is not going to be the norm for this tour. We paid enough money to be provided good hotels.
It is very cold at night with no heating so I find myself hiding under the blankets watching some old movies on my laptop and going to sleep early which I guess is not a bad thing as lots of focus is needed riding these roads each day.
We visited another old fort the next morning. If I was riding solo I’d not bother with these sort of places so it’s an interesting change of pace for me.
Later today some very rough roads as we ride to a remote valley. Scenery is superb. To the right beyond that mountain is India.
A few roadworks, our guide Ali (above) rides over the top – so I follow suit.
Here in this beautiful valley we are close to borders with China to the left and India to the right.
One of the things that has delighted me as much as the scenery is the reactions of the children here seeing us tourists. Riding though this valley passing schools on lunch break the kids go crazy seeing us and all run out into the street and try to high five. I have not experienced anything close to this since riding Flores Indonesia. (We are immediately identified as foreigners by our helmets which locals do not wear).
It’s an overused expression – but the scenery here literally stops you in your tracks. Of course it’s much grander again in real life than this photo.
Better than mountains are only mountains…
Pakistan has incredible mountains. My view tonight below.
Two of the guys say the hell with the current hotel and moved to something better for the 2nd night in Khaplu. I am upgraded to the suite which is the cabin in the foreground above. My bath is again a bucket but the view is worth it.
Next day we ride west back towards Skardu.
Thank you Skardu, you have exceeded my expectations by a wide margin.
Just past Skardu is a resort called Shangrila. It’s rather nice and I was hopeful we were staying at one of the hotels there buy alas we ride high into the hills up a road that resembles a stone river bed. It’s no fun on these bikes and I am slightly disappointed we are staying in remote accommodations lacking heating.
Nice scenery on the ride out next morning.
Today we ride to Gilgit and I was not expecting the road to be much having read previously it was in poor condition however I was delighted to find myself riding on new hotmix through this long deep gorge with heaps of curves.
It’s even deeper than this photo can convey.
Skardu to Gilgit is a spectacular road.
Slowly the canyon walls reduce a little, still much higher than the photo suggests.
Only as you arrive Gilgit do the mountains part a little. Tonight’s hotel is decent and has lots of hot water – hurrah.
From Gilgit we meet with four riders on another tour by same company and will ride together for a few days.
The next day is a short ride to Karimbad. We stop at the viewpoint for the 7788m Rakaposhi mountain but today it is shrouded in clouds.
Tonight’s hotel is quite good and I let the steamy hot water flow! haha.
The following day is clear and this is the superb view I am offered on my walk to breakfast. I think that is Rakaposhi touching the clouds in the distance. Photos do not come close to expressing the scale of these mountains which soar far higher than any I have seen in Europe or Japan.
Today we do a short but scenic ride to the Hoper valley glacier.
Pakistan has over 7000 glaciers. More than anywhere else outside the polar regions.
I’m feeling a little bit off so do not hike down to the ice but instead take a rest on the day beds provided by the restaurant we will eat at.
Nearly came off on the way down, half bald road tyres, sand, stray goats and an oncoming car on one lane road can do that. But I stayed calm and carried on.
Every corner reveals and new grand vista.
Nothing I have seen in my travels comes close to the mountain scenery in Pakistan. Even with todays mixed weather it’s off the scale.
View from Eagles Nest lookout.
The next day we move a little further north to Passu for our attempt to ride to the China border in the coming days.
The weather is unfortunately quite cloudy and cold.
This lake was formed by a earthquake and landslide. You used to have to put bike on a boat to continue but China has built a new road with many tunnels.
One of the iconic photos I had seen of northern Pakistan was the Hussaini suspension bridge.
It is a shame but today the view of the Passu Cones is shrouded and the light very poor for photography.
One of the riders was keen to have a Yak burger and today we stopped at a cafe serving them. I wasn’t really fussed with it but good to try new things.
No power, no hot water, no internet but an awesome view at tonight’s hotel. With repairs to the generator things improve. Local knowledge decides we will attempt the border tomorrow morning.
Next morning I am not really prepared for such cold temperatures. I chose this time of year to try see the leaves changing colour here, snow on the peaks and hopefully clear skies but the weather averages I read were misleading me to think it would be low teens to high single digit temps at worse. It is 0 degrees and -6 with snow at the 4700m Khunjerab pass.
I have two fleece tops on plus my thermal liner and rain liner fitted. My gloves I brought with me are warm but not my thick winter pair which were lost in shipping from Japan along with so many other items I am yet to replace.
We linger over hot chai at the last town with services and it warms a little. Maybe. Besides my hands I feel ok.
There are a number of checkpoints and permission is needed to proceed the final 40km to the border.
The climb is superb. 4718 metres. You should just be able to make out the road zig zagging back down the valley in the above photo. The last few km were a bit hairy with snow on the road.
You can walk beyond the Pakistan border control into what is probably no mans land towards the China border.
This is as close as you are allowed. There is razor wire as far as the eye can see and I counted ten security cameras.
I felt quite breathless after the walk at this altitude and the glare off the snow was blinding but also I’m elated as visiting here is a big item ticked off my list.
The Suzuki GS doesn’t have many horsepower to begin and the altitude reduced that going up. The ride back down was twice as fast.
Long but successful day. Alas after I got back I quickly found myself unwell with the symptoms of influenza.
Next day was a local ride but I had to skip it and spend the day in bed. I only surfaced briefly for hot soup and this view of the Passu cones.
Alas my condition was poor the following day so for the ride back to Gilgit I chose to travel in the support vehicle and let the mechanic ride my bike.
The jaw dropping scenery of the Karakoram highway as we leave Passu.
Driving back to Gilgit I wanted to close my eyes and rest but how can you with all this!
I got more medicine once back in a bigger town and rested for tomorrows flight to Islamabad.
Fortunately the weather is perfect. If not clear this plane from Islamabad cannot land. Then we would have been on a mini bus for two days to get back.
Back in Islamabad I go immediately to a large pharmacy and get cold and flu medication I am more familiar with and continue to rest while the guys are off sightseeing. Bit of bad luck I have missed some things but the timing would have been worse earlier in the ride. I normally carry a good selection of medication but had not noticed my medi kit was depleted prior to leaving on this tour. Rookie mistake.
A question I was asked on this tour was Pakistan Vs India Himalayan region – which is best?
Both are terrific. In India you ride very high altitudes over passes 5500m high and are riding on high plains 3000m so the mountains are not visibly as tall. In Pakistan you are lower, in valleys, and the mountains soar up to 6000m around you. That is the main difference.
I think you should ride both but if you have to choose one then look at both of my ride reports and feel free to message me about these rides. Definitely you must ride this part of the world, it is spectacular.
If you do this tour then my tips are: bring an Airhawk seat cushion or similar. Bring a hot water bottle and have it filled with boiling water each night – one of the riders had this and everyone was envious. Pack proper thermal base layers and glove liners (or come earlier in year – but the mountains really pop in autumn skies) Bring box of energy/trail bars. Don’t make my school boy mistake – bring full array of medicine.
You can ride Pakistan independently easily enough I think but I really enjoyed the tour here, the other riders were all very interesting to talk with having travelled many places I have not yet been and were fun to hang with. Like riding in northern India it is challenging here so having people make things run smooth really was appreciated. That support, providing great meals in remote areas, keeping the bikes running and sorting paperwork at checkpoints helped me considerably. I recommend Karakoram bikers despite some things could be improved. I also want to say the people of Pakistan are perhaps the friendliest I have met in the world.
I’m posting this on my way home. Internet was not reliable in northern Pakistan to post a mid ride report but it is blazing fast here in Bangkok. Most images can be clicked on to view higher resolution if you are on a PC which will give you a better idea of the scale of the landscape, well more than tiny thumbnails on a phone but frankly those peaks which soar up to 6000m higher than where I was standing can only be experienced by going there.